Limpag: Playing the Azkals’ guessing game

UNDER the Azkals’ previous coach, you could pretty much bet the house on who would make the training pool, the starting lineup and who would replace who on the field and come out the winner.

Under coach Thomas Dooley, you’d lose everything if you’d be crazy enough to do that.

Just check his lineups in his previous four games, three if you count only the Fifa friendlies that resulted in a win, a draw and a loss.

(That loss against Azerbaijan, especially that second-half showing, I think, was one of the best performances of a Philippine team in recent years.)

Even the goalkeeper position, which under Coach Michael Weiss, automatically went to Ed Sacapaño whenever Neil Etheridge or Roland Muller wasn’t available, has been shuffled among Patrick Deyto, EdSa and Nick O’Donnell.

The previous coach was lambasted for his experiments in the lineup, fielding the players in different positions, but Dooley’s moves are the kind of experiments most fans love to see—giving young and deserving players a chance to shine in the national team.

And so far, there are no complaints. As what critics like TV commentator Bob Guerrero have been saying the past few years, friendlies should be for that purpose—to give youngsters their tests and see if they pass—not to chase those Fifa ranking points.

Even the once fiesty Jason de Jong—who endeared himself to fans when in the first live telecast of a PH match on Philippine TV, he stormed off an Indonesian after getting a nasty tackle—also got a break of sorts, starting upfront against Nepal when regular forwards like Phil Younghusband and Javier Patiño were unavailable.

These kinds of experiment in the lineup bode well for the team, not just for the Challenge Cup, but for the Suzuki Cup as well, a tournament that isn’t even in the Fifa calendar and European clubs aren’t required to release players.

If our regular starters get injured, we now have one or two who can readily take their place and have the international experience under their belt. A contentious point that led some, at first, to mildy critique the previous coach until they became a barrage when he kept ignoring locals.

Take the goalkeeper position for example, in the 2012 Suzuki Cup with Etheridge and Muller unavailable, there was no real backup to Ed Sacapano and often we’d end our drinking sessions after a match-day, “Let’s hope EdSa doesn’t get injured.”

Now, we’ve got Deyto and O’Donnel, who have shown they deserve each chance they get.

We do have to develop the next generation of keepers as EdSa is getting close to north of 30, and though keepers have a long shelflife, we can’t rely on him forever.

Coach Dooley’s move of giving the locals a chance is a welcome surprise for a change, but for the American World cup veteran, it seems this has been his goal ever since he joined the team.

During our conversation last month, he said that before he was interviewed, he researched the team online and came across more than a few articles criticizing the then coach for not giving local players a chance.

Now, you have a coach who’s willing to give everyone, regardless of club affiliation, their chance to don the country’s colors and anytime a player does well internationally is a boost to his club.

And we need that now more than ever since the Asian Football Confederation is changing the way it does things, and a national team’s performance, not just the clubs, will factor in on which clubs can join the AFC Champions League.

As to this Sunday’s starting unit, we can all take our guesses as to who will start but based on the past few games, the only thing sure is that those who do get to start will show that they deserve their spot.

That’s the kind of guessing game fans love to see.

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